Yeo-manlike work in Minnesota
In under a month, the Wild fell from first overall in the NHL to playoff jeopardy
Rookie coach Mike Yeo, 37, has been a steadying influence who stopped the slide
With defenseman Marek Zidlicky's public discontent swirling, the Wild closed ranks
DENVER -- First off, the surname is pronounced Yo, not "Yow" or "Yee-ow."
Sounds like a rap star. But after one look at him -- or one minute listening to him talk -- you quickly realize that he's no rapper. Only 37, the coach of the Minnesota Wild has already succumbed to male pattern baldness. He wears wire-rimmed spectacles and comes attired in the standard NHL bench boss garb: dark sport coat and slacks, sensible shoes, single-tone shirt.
Yeo has also memorized all the right Rosetta Stone patter of the hockey coach. He uses the word "structure" a fair bit, and other stock phrases such as "executing with the puck" and "recognizing our team concept." But more about that distinctive name:
Yeo is not of Asian descent, as has been incorrectly assumed more than once during his career as a minor-league player and coach before he assumed his current gig with the Wild last summer. According to the website houseofnames.com, the Yeo surname "Comes from the old English word 'ea' or 'yo' in Somerset or Devon dialects, which meant 'river' or 'stream'. It was likely a topographic name for someone who lived near a stream."
His minor-league years spent largely in Houston, Yeo now lives in the land of 10,000 lakes. And the topography he has navigated during his first season in The Show has been like Minnesota's Lutsen Mountains. On Dec. 13, the surprising Wild held the No. 1 spot in my SI.com NHL Power Rankings with a league-leading 20-7-3 record. By Jan. 10, their ranking was No. 19, at 21-15-6. Fluke, the proper name for the fish known as the flounder (found in many of the 10,000 lakes), was also given to his team as it entered the All-Star break. Come to think of it, the word flounder was used to describe Yeo's Wild, too.
But after a chippy, gritty 1-0 win over the Avalanche on Thursday in Denver, the Wild hung tough to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, three points ahead of Dallas and Colorado. The victory was an impressive response to what Yeo himself said was like a "punch in the stomach" -- a 5-4 home loss to Nashville in which the Wild blew a 4-1 third-period lead with three Predators goals coming in the final four minutes. In the process, Yeo has tried to preach what sounds like the art of Zen.
"What we're trying to do right now is live in the moment," he says. "We're still in a very good spot right now. We still have to be happy with where we're at. We can't get caught up in how we got here. We have to recognize where we're at and the opportunity that's in front of us and take advantage of that."
The Wild seem most comfortable in the role of underdog, anyway. Number one overall or league front-runner never seemed to quite fit a team that maybe 0.1 percent of the population outside of St. Paul could name in a Jeopardy quiz.
Forward Devin Setoguchi, acquired in one of the two big offseason trades with the San Jose Sharks that GM Chuck Fletcher engineered, doesn't believe that he and his teammates suffered from a case of expanding hat size after their blazing start. But maybe they did wrongly start believing that success could come easily.
"I think we got away from our system," says Setoguchi, who was rather strangely traded to Minnesota one day after signing a three-year contract extension with San Jose during last year's NHL Draft in St. Paul. "But I think lately we've felt more confident and we're getting our game back. Every team goes through ups and downs in a season, but we're in the hunt for a playoff spot now. That's what you want as a team going down the stretch."
Not that everything is perfect again with the Wild. First-line center Mikko Koivu remains sidelined until at least next week with a shoulder injury, and there was a developing sideshow regarding highly-paid veteran defenseman Marek Zidlicky that Yeo and Fletcher must handle. After being a healthy scratch for three straight games, Zidlicky made the unusual, very unhockey-like move of going to the media with his frustration. On the morning of the Wild's home game disaster with Nashville, Zidlicky sought out Minneapolis Star Tribune beat writer Michael Russo and proceeded to publicly air a litany of gripes.
"I can't be quiet," Zidlicky told Russo. "I think three games healthy scratch, it's more than just like a healthy scratch. [Yeo's] put me in this position that I am in right now. It's not easy for me. It's good for team probably because the guys played pretty well the last two games, but for me, I did everything what he wants me to do. I played like 17, 18 minutes ice time, I play just third, fourth line, I stood on the blue line, I didn't do anything what I did years before. He said everything I do with the puck and without the puck, it's wrong. So I have a little different opinion."
About an hour before game time later that night, Yeo called Russo into his office and responded to Zidlickly's comments that had by then been posted on the newspaper's blog. "One thing for sure, we're going to talk," Yeo told the Star Tribune. "This is not the right way to handle it. Much the same as I wouldn't want a player to pick up the newspaper one day and read something like, 'Woah, I didn't know the coach thought that.' Like, come into talk to me if there's a problem. There's always more than enough communication from our side. It's got to go both ways."
By Thursday in Denver, the Wild had put up the figurative yellow "Do not cross" tape around the Zidlicky situation, trying to keep it all in-house. No more alone time with the media was granted by him or the team, and Yeo didn't want any more questions about their public exchange. Needless to say, there is a defenseman, with a cap hit of $4 million this season and next, available in Minnesota, should anyone want to give Fletcher a call.
Yeo seemed convincing in his "Every day is a new day, the past is the past" persona after the uncomfortable situation with Zidlicky. If anything, Yeo has proven to the rest of the Wild players that there are no favorites here, no matter one's salary. Players may not always like that, but it's hard not to respect it. Either way, Yeo isn't about to let the Zidlicky situation deter from what he says has been a pinch-me-I'm-dreaming rookie season behind an NHL bench.
"It's been outstanding," he says. "There have been some great things and there have been some things that have been extremely difficult, but I love coaching every day. I love facing all these challenges as much as I do when things are going really well. I'm very young and learning on the job, but this has been a great learning experience for me this year."
If the Wild make it to the postseason, their coach will indeed have done a yeoman's work keeping them afloat after they began to sink in the standings, and presumably out of sight.